During his freshman year at Kansas State in 1972, he joined the Air Force ROTC and took the Air Force Officers Qualifying Test, which he nearly aced. Then during a physical exam his left eye failed him, and he was told he will never fly a jet—at least not one owned by the U.S. government. He still could have entered the Air Force as an officer, but for him, what was the point?
Two Saturdays ago, my dad and stepmom (who definitely prefers I just call her Holly) came to visit from Pennsylvania, where they currently live. Since I know my father’s history, and his general interest in aviation, I’d invited him to accompany me on a trip to Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport. Built in 1930 to compete with Newark for New York’s commercial air needs, during WWII the field became home to a Naval air station and an important embarkation point for transatlantic flights and shipments to the front lines in Europe. I can’t tell you how to get there by public transit, because my dad and Holly picked me up from my place in Clinton Hill. (Just between us, my dad drives like you’d imagine Chuck Yeager would. He really would have made a great pilot.) The airfield, deactivated since 1971, is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in its own right.
We arrived on a chilly morning in search of the Historic Aircraft Recreation Project (or HARP, not to be confused with HAARP) in Hangar B, where National Park Service volunteers have been restoring or building replicas of historic aircraft there since 1995. Total dad bait.
As we approached the park, a soccer game was going on near the entrance, and we veered right toward the hangars. We walked up to the nearest hangars, numbers 7 and 8, and followed another small group inside. A lot of hockey equipment hung on the walls. In the adjoining open hall, children tumbled and did gymnastics. Thoroughly confused—largely because the sign out front said “Aviators”—I asked a teenager behind the front desk where we could find Hangar B, you know, with all the old planes. He said he didn’t work there, but pointed out to me three older guys nearby who were staff. One of them got up real close to me, doing that thing where someone points and you’re supposed to track the direction of their sightline, indicating a yellowish building far across the field. “That’s it, right there. Hangar B. That’s a long walk. You got a car?”
A short drive over the crumbling and weed-sprouting former runways, and we arrived at our destination. We entered and walked through a few empty rooms with walls fully adorned with aviation history memorabilia before chancing on a group of volunteers behind a door with a sign reading “IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO DO, DON’T DO IT HERE!” As is customary with these trips to historical places, everyone there demands to know who you talked to when you called and were told that tours are given on regular schedules without reservations, even though you didn’t get a name, it was just the dude who answered at the number listed on the NPS site. We were in luck, however, because another tour group had just started, even though it was a bunch of teens (tweens, really, as far as I could tell), but there you have it.
On our way to jump in with the tour group, an NPS ranger wearing a backpack approached and introduced himself as George. He’d only recently started working at Floyd Bennett Field, so he couldn’t tell us too much, but he was doing a project for the NPS website. He wanted to record me on his Flip saying how we’d heard about Floyd Bennett Field, and what brought us there. I personally believe myself to be the worst extemporaneous speaker in history, so I politely mumbled and grimaced my way through a brief explanation, writing this series of travel pieces, my dad loves aviation history, yada yada yada. God, it was painful.
As we joined the tour group, which was already moving onto its second aircraft, George kept conspiratorially whispering his own shoddy tour in my ear, even as the real tour proceeded. The kids ahead were being led up a ramp to view an old PT, and they looked like they were already having a lot more fun than I was, and learning stuff to boot! I must have looked back at George with either malice or desperation, because he finally relented, “Well, enjoy the tour.” I suppose he left the hangar shortly thereafter because we didn’t see him again. I’m not mad at you George; I just really wanted to see the pretty airplane.
Sure enough, the group was led over a wooden staircase to look in the cockpit of a Fairchild PT-26 trainer. These were the planes that a lot of young Allied pilots in WWII were trained on before moving on to more famous fighter planes such as P-47s and later, P-51s. It’s a sleek little number, painted blue with yellow wings. Trailing behind from the top of the staircase I could see the whole tour group. Hard to figure out what their “thing” was just from looking. The group included about a dozen Latino boys and girls and a pretty middle-aged lady admonishing them for not paying attention, but a few young girls were in hijab. Anyway, I’ve really come to appreciate young people on these sorts of outings, as it tends to add a liveliness we adults are sorely lacking.
Our tour guide Artie, a short, gray-haired man in his fifties, then led us to a Coast Guard helicopter. My dad said it looked like a Sikorsky, to which I replied, basically, “Huh?” It’s a helicopter manufacturer, he says. He was right, of course, and we followed the group up an open hatch into the back of the Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican. Artie explained that these were used for amphibious rescue and demonstrated the pivoting jump seat next to the side hatch. I snapped a pic of the control panel, which I will never understand, and followed the group back out.
We then found ourselves on the side of a Lockheed SP-2 Neptune, a medium-sized plane used mostly during the early Cold War as anti-submarine bombers. The kids on the tour had to have the Cold War explained to them. Artie called another guide, Bob, over from across the hangar to take the reins of the tour. As Bob was about to begin talking he went into a coughing fit, hacking and sputtering into his sleeve. Holly quietly sidled up and handed him a half-empty bottle of water, which he gulped down thankfully. Holly asked me if that was going in the piece. Once his throat was clear, Bob explained that he’d been an Air Force crew member as a younger man and had personally manned nearly every position on a Neptune except for pilot. He told the kids about flying just off Cuba during the missile crisis of ’63, looking for Soviet submarines from the air, though he admitted that in all his years of service, no crew he was on ever spotted one.
Artie then showed the kids a ladder on the underside of the Neptune and led them up into the fuselage. I opted out, considering how tightly packed it seemed in there, even though these planes tended to carry a crew of 10. Instead I hung back with Bob and chatted with him for a few minutes. He’d joined the USAF in 1959 at age 18. He showed me his old Air Force ID, which he still carries on him, its markings now weathered nearly beyond recognition. He started volunteering with the HARP in 1999. I asked why the project was relegated to this distant hangar. He said it used to be in one of the main terminals, closer to the action, but since the park had undergone a revitalization in the early 2000s, HARP was pushed across the tarmac over to Hangar B. The main terminals now, he said, host the Aviators, a minor league hockey team. When hockey season is over, they open the rink for public ice skating.
Naturally, my dad had followed the tour group into the Neptune. After several minutes Holly and I saw him emerge in the nosecone of the plane. He sat in the seat, grinning that goofy grin I inherited from him, and I snapped a picture as Holly and I giggled. He eventually made his way down a slender ladder back onto the hangar floor and explained that he had to crawl through a very small space to get up to the nosecone, so small that he was worried he was going to get stuck. While that would have been hilarious, I’m glad it didn’t go down like that.
Next Artie led the tour group past a Beechcraft JRB Expeditor to a Korean War-era Army ambulance, exactly the kind seen on M*A*S*H. Artie built up the suspense a little before opening the back to show a dummy lying on a slat in the back, covered in a blanket, which the kids, of course, went wild over. It was pretty creepy. This particular ambulance, Artie told us, had been found rusted and broken down in a ditch near the Jersey Shore. He pointed out two holes that had been punched in the side. Before repainting it, he said, the words “Larry’s Liquor Locker” were emblazoned on the side. Apparently some guy named Larry had purchased the decommissioned ambulance from the Army and converted it into a beer truck, with keg spouts bored in one side. Larry then drove the truck up and down the beach, selling cold ones to summer vacationers.
Artie took us past a replica of the Wright brothers’ famous Flyer, which was unfinished. He said they were hustling to finish this and the other replicas because a big air show was coming to Floyd Bennett Field in early May. Finally, he took the tour into the cabin of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, a military transport plane adapted from the famous DC-3 and what was essentially the first commercial airplane. Since this was the military version, all the seats and interior siding had been removed. Inside, I learned from the middle-aged woman corralling the group of tweens that it was her ESL class. They were mostly Spanish-speakers, but the girls in hijab and one teenage boy were Arabic-speakers. I told her my line of work (education publishing), and we talked shop about English language development for a few minutes. She mistook my father and I for brothers. Later, when relating this information to the old man, I told him I didn’t know whether he should be flattered or I offended. He got a chuckle out of that. (But seriously, my inherited odds of aging gracefully are looking pretty good.)
Artie released the tour group, who was headed back to the main terminals to ice-skate. Holly, my dad, and I hung back to talk to Artie. I asked how they came by all of the planes for the project. The former Army planes, he explained, were mostly bought directly from the Army or collectors who’d kept them on dormant airfields over the years. The Navy planes, however, were all on leave from the Navy. That is, the Navy never officially decommissions an aircraft. They loan them out, provided they get the careful consideration the HARP shows, but they can call them back for any purpose, as happens occasionally, usually for air shows.
Then Artie showed us his pet project, a bright yellow PT-17 biplane that he was also hurrying to have finished by the first week of May. After explaining a troublesome bit of business he’d faced with the top wing and some misplaced bolts, he showed us to the care of another volunteer whose name I forgot to write down. This guy, tall and wiry, also a veteran, showed us the A-4 we’d been eyeballing all day, the same model fighter John McCain was shot down in while flying over Vietnam. According to the volunteer, the planes had been designed to pick up radio signals from enemy ground-to-air missile sites. When a transmission was picked up, the pilots were then supposed to fly directly at the signal source (i.e., where the missiles were coming from) and unload their own missiles to destroy the bunker. Story has it one of the squadrons that flew these A-4s had patches on their shoulders with the acronym YGTBFKM, or something like that, because during an initial debriefing, wherein the purpose of these fighter planes was explained, a disbelieving pilot toward the back row was heard to say, sotto voce, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
My dad and the volunteer then went on a tear comparing various other service acronyms and call numbers, which tend to have the same effect on me as sports statistics. After I regained consciousness, Holly, my father, and I strolled back to where the tour had begun and checked out the first plane we’d missed, a PBY Catalina. The PBY, my dad says, was a seaplane used principally for reconnaissance during WWII. It was a PBY, in fact, that spotted a large portion of the Japanese fleet anchored off Midway Atoll, giving the U.S. the drop on them, and the Allies their turning point in the Pacific theater.
We took a last sweep of the hangar before going out the way we’d come in, admiring the simple beauty of all this ingenious machinery designed to lift one off the earth. As my father pulled us away from Hangar B, he bemoaned his faulty left eye for the thousandth time before speeding a little too quickly across the derelict runways and out of the old airfield.